The envelope had arrived in the post just two days before, and I had not yet told my parents. Nor had I seen Lucille to break it to her, since she was needed at her father’s shop now that school had ended. So this was the first time the news would cross my lips.
“I’ve been accepted to the Nightingale School at Saint Thomas Hospital in London.”
“Oh, if that isn’t the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. You stay right there!” Miss Ellis vaulted from her seat, leaving a concave impression in its tweedy fabric. She swept open the door to the lobby and encircled me in an embrace far warmer than any I expected my news to earn me at home.
Just as I thought I would never again draw breath, I was released. “We will surely miss you around here, you know that, but you will be the best and most lovely nurse in the country, I’m absolutely sure of it. Don’t you go forgetting all of your old friends now that you’ll be living down in a fancy city.”
I took her hand in mine. “Of course I won’t. I’ll write to you as well.”
“Never mind. I will learn all I need to know from the letters to your brother. You need to spend your time studying. So, don’t you worry. Just make us proud.” She squeezed my arms and then looked down, concern spreading across her face as she saw the grim state of my skirt and shoes.
The telephone rang, sending her back to the room behind the wall. She picked up the receiver, only to cover it and point her head in the direction of the hall.
“Towels,” she mouthed, “in the room marked ‘Laundry.’” She returned to her call. “Bootle Home, how may I help you?”
It was the same conversation I’d heard nearly every time I visited. Another desperate couple on the other end, willing to cover great distances to come here. Their child was not what they expected, and they were anxious for a place to relieve their burden. To tuck them away on a shelf, rarely visited and often forgotten. Except for the regular invoices that assuaged their consciences, satisfied that the opulence of the institution was a reasonable substitute for the loving care of a family.
At the beginning of the century, the only recourse for such a disappointing birth was the government-run Institution for Idiots and the Feeble Minded. But now, those with burgeoning coffers could select the marble halls and lavender-scented air of the Bootle Home. Leaded-glass windows, the best doctors. Their child surrendered to lonely luxury.
I found the correct room next to the lavatory, and marveled at the ceiling-high piles of perfect white towels on wooden shelves. My hands floated along their soft, rounded edges. Most were larger than I needed, but I found one that was suitable. I was pleased to see a sink located in the corner. I held the towel under the tap, wringing the excess, and dabbed it fruitlessly on my skirt. The mud only darkened, with edges that had now spread into an oval smear.
I sighed and found a bin for soiled towels. I adjusted my clothes so that the stain was only evident from the back and smoothed the new front until I was satisfied that I could do no better.
Miss Ellis was still on the telephone when I returned, taking notes and nodding her head. I passed the magazines laid out in rows on an elaborately carved cabinet. I made a game of noticing something different about it with every visit, and this time I spotted the profile of a cherub on a drawer to the left. Its face was enigmatic, and I was unable to decide if it was a happy angel or an angry one. Mother would love this. The cabinet no doubt had great value, and could stand with the best of them on the pages of a Christie’s catalog. Such was Bootle Home.
I reached for a Vogue, but it was an issue that I had already seen. So I closed my eyes and sank into the plush cushions of the sofa, my toes just skimming the floor. A clock across the room clanged a throaty sound once to mark the hour. I needed to leave by the time it rang twice in order to make it home before my visit was discovered, and there was still no sign of Charles.
I looked down at my nails and pulled at a snag. They were glossy, polished by Lucille last Sunday with a delicate pink that reminded me of strawberry chiffon. She had a steady hand, and though she chided me for having “twenty thousand colors,” my oldest friend smiled as she tapped the brush on the lip of the bottle.
The quarter-hour chime of the clock clanged the progression of time. But just as I was beginning to lose hope, I heard the twittering noises of adolescence beyond the large exterior doors.
They opened to reveal a motley collection of residents, some young, some fully grown, all suspended in an ageless innocence that still found delight in ladybirds and soap bubbles. I watched as they filed in, then I looked for my brother and found him, at last, near the back. He was being supported by a young man, one whom I hadn’t seen before. My breath caught uncharacteristically as I studied the stranger. He was tall, with wavy locks and malt-colored eyes. He wore heavy canvas trousers and a rumpled white shirt, a departure from the starchy, crisp uniforms of the orderlies. He held Charles’s arm with all of the patience that I could hope for, and with a tenderness more pronounced than I’d seen in anyone else I’d encountered here since beginning my secret visits.
I stood up and took another magazine, peeking out over its pages, and watched as they turned toward the dormitory wing. Everyone passed them by, but the young man took unhurried steps that matched Charles’s as he shuffled along.
A file cabinet drawer slammed next to me, and I jumped at the sound.
“Sorry, dear,” Miss Ellis said, whirling and opening another.
“Not at all,” I said, setting the magazine aside only to realize that its subject was fox hunting. And that I’d been holding it upside down.
“Going shooting anytime soon?” Her eyes grew large, and my smile was unconvincing.
“Who is the man with Charles?” I caught my faint reflection in a nearby window and tucked an errant strand of hair behind my ear.
“Ah, that would be the young McCarthy. The one I was telling you about. A good boy he is, and a handsome one, too. Such a shame, though. He’s a—”
But the telephone interrupted us before she could finish.
“Just a second, dear,” she said as she bustled to her desk. She caught it on the fifth ring. “Bootle Home. How may I help you?”
Her voice blended into the symphony around me, comprised of the dull whirring of a distant hoover and the clatter of plates being collected in the dining hall. The building was returning to life, awakened by the arrival of the residents from their daily exercises. My attention, however, was acutely focused on the retreating figures of my brother and his companion.